[Image description: A man is holding his daughter in the air as they hike across a river.]
There’s a reason we describe carefree times as “a walk in the park” or “a day at the beach”: Being in the great outdoors really can improve your mood. In fact, spending time in nature has been linked to many mental health benefits, from reducing stress and improving mood to increasing attention and lowering the risk of psychiatric disorders.
What scientists are saying
In one study, taking a walk in a natural setting was shown to improve both memory and mood — more so than taking a walk in an urban setting. This was the case for people in general, but the impact was even greater among those diagnosed with major depressive disorder.
Researchers have also found that people who have access to natural environments are less likely to report not getting enough sleep. This was especially true of men. And while problems sleeping can sometimes be a symptom of a condition such as depression, it’s also been found that poor sleep can make many mental health conditions worse.
If you live in a city, your access to nature may be more limited, but you can still benefit. In Sheffield, England, people who downloaded a special smartphone app were prompted to make note of “good things in nature” they found in their urban environment — such as a view of the sky or a squirrel in the park. Doing so for seven days increased measures of both their mental well-being and their “connectedness with nature” — which, in turn, was linked to better well-being.
Getting a dose of nature’s remedy
Nature also has some advantages as a therapy: For the most part, it’s free — or as inexpensive as bus fare to your nearest park. And there aren’t any side effects (although you may want to use sunscreen, bug spray, or medication if you have seasonal allergies).
Here are some ways to take advantage of nature’s rewards:
- Forest bathing: Also known as Shinrin-Yoku, this traditional Japanese practice involves being in nature and mindfully using all of your senses. You don’t need to go deep into a forest; any green area will do. Plan to spend at least 20 minutes there — walking slowly, appreciating the quiet, and focusing on sights, smells, and other sensations.
- Outdoor exercise: Physical activity is known to reduce depression and stress, improve mood and sleep, and increase energy levels. So, find a local path to walk, cycle, or skate. Or look for outdoor yoga or tai chi classes for a more meditative kind of movement.
- Gardening: Beyond getting you outdoors, gardening also involves physical activities like digging, raking, and mowing. If you don’t have your own space, consider a plot in a community garden. That can offer opportunities for social interaction — which is also good for mental health.
- Create art outdoors: Take a sketchbook and try your hand at drawing something in the natural world. Or capture it in a poem or photograph. It’s another way to take note of natural features around you.
- Go for the blue: When we think of nature, we think of green spaces. But, in fact, blue spaces — lakes, rivers, or other aquatic environments — can also improve your well-being. So, find a waterfront and enjoy a picnic or boat ride.
While spending time in nature may lift your mood, you may still want to consult with a mental health professional if you’re feeling down. Therapists on Amwell can help you identify and cope with challenges — even a few sessions can make a difference.